Why Artist Housing?

6 min read

Its role in your community

While our art cannot, as we wish it could,
save us from wars, privation, envy, greed,
old age, or death, it can revitalize us
amidst it all.   – Ray Bradbury

I have enjoyed a long career in affordable housing development and have spent more than a decade working for Artspace, the nation’s largest nonprofit developer for artist housing. In my work around the United States, I am sometimes asked “Why is this important? Why do artists deserve affordable housing?” After all, being an artist is a choice people make; it is not a condition determined by societal conditions or attitudes or by history.

I used to be somewhat startled by this question until I realized that most people hear “artist” and think it must be housing for a young, single painter or actor in New York or L.A. The “starving artist” who sacrifices a better life for his or her art is an American stereotype, but also largely a myth.

The residents of our buildings are veterans, formerly homeless, retirees, service workers, teachers, parents – and they also happen to be artists. They are likely to be earning their income from something other than their art. Too often, artists are shoehorned into what is referred to as the “creative class sector” and assumed to be a certain age, race, household size or income group. But they are all of us. What we know from the thousands of artists living in our 46 projects around the United States is that they are first and foremost human beings with the same needs for safe, healthy homes as every other being, but who also need the proper space in which to create. Often, they are people without regular or full-time jobs who work enough to cover their expenses and still leave time to create. By utilizing tax credits we are able to provide affordable rents for both living and working studio space that provide them some much needed stability.

I recently spoke in Washington, DC at a conference session on “creative placemaking,” a term used often in city planning vocabulary. The term is defined by Ann Markusen for the National Endowment for the Arts as, “partners from public, private, nonprofit and community sectors who strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city or region around arts and cultural activities.” As the attendees discussed the tools and best practices of placemaking to ensure an inclusive and engaged process for artists and creatives, I asked the audience how many self-identified as artists. About two percent of the people raised their hands. I then asked how many, if they could move beyond fear or restart their career paths, would like to be practicing artists – about 90 percent of the room raised their hands.

Many among us want to be artists, but our artists are among the biggest risk takers – the ones literally and figuratively coloring outside the lines. It’s not something we all have in us. But we don’t want those who do to stop. We want innovation and they are the innovators. We want creativity and they are the creators. Artists are often the ones speaking out against injustice, raising awareness on social and cultural issues, bringing a creative voice to community problem solving, helping children and youth express themselves and leading social change. Without musicians, writers, poets, storytellers, culture bearers, sculptors and designers, who would challenge conventional thought? Without murals, dance, theaters, galleries, museums and music venues, what would our communities look and feel like? Who would inspire the mind to wander beyond the exhausting exigencies of everyday life?  The artists lead that journey.

Of course, arts institutions and arts districts have historically proven to significantly benefit communities financially. In addition to bringing joy, they attract an audience, produce foot traffic and revenue, encourage new businesses and further development in the neighborhood. For there to be arts and creative districts and anchoring arts institutions, there needs to be artists to fill them. The irony here is that these creative districts are also likely to develop into the trendy neighborhoods that essentially increase the cost of real estate and forces the artists to relocate. We historically reference this trend as the “Soho Affect” and good planners and practitioners of creative placemaking should ensure that there is a long-term plan for the creatives and artists that made the community a vibrant place to begin with. Artists should not be the pawns in the community and real estate economic development game. They shouldn’t be used to build a neighborhood, but forced to move on once the market heats up. Artist housing is workforce housing. Just as we want to keep the people who serve our community—teachers, police, firefighters, etc.—living in our community and attached to it, we want to keep those who can inspire us and be inspired by us nearby.

In the fire in Oakland’s Ghost Ship building in December 2016, 36 accomplished artists lost their lives in a DIY artist collective located in a warehouse building not up to code that was, by all accounts, a tinderbox. Lack of affordable space for artists creates an underground market for illegal space owned by private landlords who are either absent or turn a blind eye. This is an extreme example of the burdens of displacement, but we should view it as a wakeup call.

We are an entertainment obsessed society. We take from the artists. We want what they give us. Some of them—actually very few—benefit substantially and acquire great wealth and fame. But that remains the exception.

I recognize that we at Artspace primarily develop a unique type of niche housing. But our advocacy work is deeply committed to the importance of affordable housing as a whole. As important as creating these affordable spaces can be for artists and their communities, we don’t want this type of housing to be a tool for communities to “check a box” and argue they’ve now done their part to serve low-income residents. I’ve sadly been working in communities where there has been discussion that artist low-income housing is acceptable, but somehow that “other” low-income housing is not. Artist housing is not a panacea for a community’s responsibility to provide quality life cycle housing for all key workers and sectors.

In the continued debate on affordable and workforce housing, especially in a climate of decreasing resources, we as an industry must recognize and champion for affordable and sustainable housing options across all sectors, including the artists.

Artists have a unique ability to paint the
world, and to help people see injustice.
They do it not with guns, but with pens
and guitars and paintbrushes.  – Teresa R. Funke